This is an award winning UK sci-fi space short film made Backyard Productions UK as part of the “Darkwave universe.” Set in a world where rare crystals – called Starlight Crystals – make FTL flight possible, it shows that even with a low budget and actors working for free, you can still tell a damn good story. I write about this because I really feel that this Darkwave setting REALLY needs to be written up as an RPG setting. Someone really needs to approach these guys with the idea.
As explained the beginning of the film, something called the Darkwave is an event blamed for nearly all the Starlight Crystals not working. ONly a small percentage of them still work. This ends up leaving many ships in mid-flight stranded in the middle of space, decades if not centuries away from a colony using sublight engines. Finally, a sci-fi movie that respects stellar distances.
Only a few fragments of working Starlight crystals exist, so only a few ships can travel limited FTL. Apparently the distance and speed a crystal can travel is proportional to the size in some way. Scavenger ships armed with these crystals travel from derelict to derelict – called Drifts – salvaging cargo, rescuing passengers where possible and salvaging crystal fragments. Some have good intentions while others don’t. The film introduces a Ministry ship named the Deliverance ( a ship that vaguely looks like the Firefly) and it’s salvage crew of eight scavengers. The drop out of FTL asleep in hypersleep suits after a 5 month flight, near a couple of Drifts – a cargo ship and a passenger liner – that is apparently near the nebula where the Darkwave originated.
The characters are kind of cliched – hard-ass woman inspired by Ripley from Alien, the wise-cracking American pilot, the by-the-book perfectly British captain, the pair of rough and tumble blue-collar types that are underappreciated and do all the work, a wide-eyed kid who is bound to get in trouble, rookie corporate guy and so on. Collectively, they come across as a cross between the crew of the Firefly and the crew of the Nostromo with some homages to the marines of the Sulaco. They come across a starship graveyard of multiple wrecks and other debris. Their systems apparently detected a crystal fragment and they are after it.
What follows is a series of events that are reminiscent of several claustrophobic space movies like Aliens, Pandorum, and the like. There are survivors on the ship and they all have a dark story to tell. It is a mad dash to recover a crystal on the ship that is apparently special. A mole in the group wants the crystal for their own clandestined purposes while the rest just try to get out. There are moments you can tell this is a shoe-string budget production while others are top-notch. The hallways seem thrown together and poorly constructed at times, but the set of the Deliverance is very cool. Overall, however, the story they tell is compelling and fantastically inspiring.
From an RPG point of view, this movie is more inspiring from a setting point of view than anything else. The story itself is tropey and cliched, but would serve as a great intro adventure into the settings. This “Ministry” they work for needs to be fleshed out, as does the covert factions within that drove the mole character. There would need to be an idea of what the universe was like before the Darkwave and what it is now. Colonies are isolated now, with only a few fragments available to them, perhaps only able to reach out to other nearby systems. Smaller stellar nations would form, space would factionalize and people would start blaming others for the Darkwave. Perhaps a whole faith would rise out of the Darkwave, saying that humanity had reached too far.
Youtube is full of short sci-fi and fantasy films, some good and some not so good. I found this one exceptionally imaginative and inspiring. I hope I can find the time to flesh out a setting inspired by it.
Also known as Ragewar: The Challenges Of Excalibrate, I found this movie in an old article about old awful 80s fantasy films. And this one was pretty awful. although it had great potential. The article included several movies I had already reviewed so I decided to give this one a chance. My research found that it was somewhat inspired by Disney’s Tron, but only mildly. The studio changed the movie’s name from Ragewar: The Challenges Of Excalibrate to The Dungeonmaster in part because of the popularity of D&D at the time. So obviously, I had to review it for RPG inspirations.
The movie stars Jeffrey Byron from Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Synfame, as Paul, a computer geek with interesting and rather visionary talents. The movie starts out in the 80s modern world where we see some of his computer skills and talents. It is implied that he was “experimented on” by someone, giving him some very unique abilities to connect, diagnose and communicate with computers. Before there was wireless, touch screens and Google Glass, this guy could use his glasses and watch to wirelessly connect to his home computer, diagnose computer problems, and change traffic signals at will.
We are then introduced to his girlfriend, a dancer named Gwen. She and his AI personal computer Cal (short for X-CaliBR8) fight a battle for Paul’s attention. One night while they slept, something weird happens that the movie does not clearly explain. Paul and Gwen are somehow teleported to a Hellish realm by a mysterious devil-like figure named Mestema (played by the great Richard Moll). Somehow, Cal the computer is connected to this but it’s not really explained how. I am pretty sure the subtext is that computers are of the devil, though. Having worked in computers for nearly 25 years, I can safely say that is not far from the truth.
Mestema (I really hate that name for a villain) sees Paul as a new challenge. Although not clear in the movie, some of the text on the internet say that Mestema is a dark sorcerer bored with defeating all things magic and sees technology as the new threat. There is a lot devil and Satan references and symbolism throughout. Mestema plans to send Paul against seven challenges and if successful, he wins Gwen. If he loses, Gwen remains with Mestema. Reminiscent of Hercules and his twelve labors, Paul faces off against various beings and situations armed only with a portable version of his X-CaliBR8 mounted on a bracer.
This is where the movie really falls apart, however. The story actually had so much potential. It would not have blown the budget if they just had a little more imagination. Instead, they settled on Paul’s laser-shooting wristband for most every solution. Each challenge was a separate story that maybe lasted 10 minutes, and was written by a different person. Bold move in my opinion but in the end, the story fell short.
The segments were:
In Ice Gallery written by Rosemarie Turko, Paul and Gwen are placed separately in a frozen gallery of “criminals” or denizens of hell. They include Bloody Mary, Jack the Ripper, the werewolf, the mummy, a unnamed Samurai, a Zombie, King Louis and of course, the worse of the all – Albert Einstein??? I guess, in the 80s, he was deemed evil or hell-worthy because of his contribution to the bomb. None of this really makes sense but you roll with it. I got stuck on the movie-monsters in Hell, but whatever. Something like the Nightmares of Hell would have made more sense.
Gwen begins to freeze up while Paul is trying to find her and a way out. Mestema proceeds to turn the heat up and of course, all the figures begin to thaw out. The two find each other and have to find a way out. The end solution is surprisingly not technological, however, and very stupid in the end. This is one of many examples of a lost opportunity in writing and storytelling. I thought the whole point was for technology to overcome magic but instead, it’s just some mysterious crystal being held by the un-thawed Einstein (why was he still frozen?). Somehow, Cal knows that Paul needs to just throw this ice crystal, and everyone wins! Yay! It’s just stupid.
Why not use technology to defeat each creature in more ways than just Ask Cal? I realize it was supposed to be short but the end solution made no sense. I suppose because the crystal was in the hands of a man of science, that it is a metaphor for science defeating magic but I found that very weak. It could have been a book or something closely related to knowledge and science. Let the light of knowledge destroy all your nightmares. Or something like that. If you needed to cut something out, take out the whole aspect of Gwen freezing (we already know it’s cold) and instead add her figuring some aspect out of the mystery. Instead of making her yet another damsel in distress, make her a equal partner with Paul in figuring this challenge out.
Demons of the Dead, written by John Buechler, had Paul appear alone in another realm of Hell, ruled by a puppet-effect demon. Paul faces off with a couple of zombies and then meets the puppet demon, Ratspit. Paul must face his own death, according to the demon puppet. How does that work out? Paul staring down his own zombie-self and saying “Meh.” Again, stupid and it has nothing to do with technology defeating Mestema or magic.
A redeeming moment in this scene is the line uttered by Paul “I reject your reality and substitute my own!” (partially borrowed from a Dr. Who episode) and I think this gets to the point of the encounter. Paul is supposed to die at the hands of Mestema, resulting in zombie-Paul, but Paul realizes it is only a single possibility of many and rejects that reality altogether. Although fairly imaginative and cerebral, the execution of this encounter is really poorly done. Facing one’s own death needs to be more dramatic and meaningful. I think, once again, lack of budget killed the potential in this scene. And a realm of Hell should look more epic than something thrown together with hot-glue and discount Halloween decorations.
Of course, RPG scenes have need no budget and so this is how I would have done the scene. Paul awakens from the teleportation effect on some kind of stone dais, the only light in a seemingly cavernous room shines on him like a spotlight. The dais is just high enough that the a dozens of zombies surrounding him can not reach him. This is the moment that he realizes that he could be surrounded by thousands upon thousands of zombies in a huge cavern. Ratspit called himself the “caretaker of the dead” and controlled the “discarded husks that once contained the human souls.” If so, then there would be millions in his realm. However, cinematically, I would only show a few just his feet and imply there are thousands and maybe millions around him.
Somewhere above him, perhaps sitting on his thrown on some ledge in the cavern is Ratspit, who challenges him to face his own death. At that moment, another dais raises out of the crowd of zombies. Standing on it is his zombie-self. It proceeds to walk over the crowd of zombies below him, using the heads as stepping stones. During this time, perhaps Paul has flashes of future challenges and how he might die – death by the torture devices of the Heavy Metal band, death by the Slasher and death by the Stone Canyon Statue – all greweling and gory. Meanwhile, Cal could be calculating the possibilities of each, somehow tapped into this vision. The zombie-Paul then reaches Paul’s dais and perhaps a combat ensues but Paul eventually rejects the death saying it is only one of many probabilities, sighting mathematically all other possibilities, tying it back to technology and science.
Heavy Metal written by Charles Band brought me back to my 80s metalhead days. The great 80s hair-band WASP makes an appearance in this one. Paul is sent to a modern heavy metal concert in some crowded dive. Gwen stands chained in some torture apparatus while WASP plays their song, The Tormentor. The crowd is full of vicious big-haired fans trying to prevent him from getting on stage to save Gwen. The lead singer Blackie Lawless, threatens Gwen with a machete. After another awkward and poorly shot fight sequence between Paul and the band, Paul uses Cal to determine the solution was sound waves – blast the band and crowd with a massive burst of sound waves and they will be free. Wow, Cal has better speakers than an iPhone!
Again, a missed opportunity. They thought of hacking into traffic lights to allow Paul an uninterrupted jog as well as hacking into ATMs to get money (both in the beginning scenes of the movie) but they did not think of hacking into sound systems of a rock band. Admittedly, they did not really identify the source of the sound; it just happens. But I assumed it was from his Cal device and not the sound system. Although this whole scene was a stupid excuse to get a WASP song in the movie, it had potential if they really wanted to explore it. The producers truly failed on this one because the dive they found was so cramped and small. I feel it would have been more successful on a big stage where Paul would have to climb up to save Gwen. Budget problems, again!
Again, imagination has no budget. I would have had this in an arena with various torture devices in the background on stage. I would also tie this into Gwen interest in dancing and perhaps plug this early on. I would have her as a dance girl in one of the devices, something she has been trying out for. Due to plants earlier in the movie, Paul knows there will be an accident and realizes it will cause the death of Gwen. He rushes to stop it but demon-things as well as stage security try to stop him while he climbs back stage and attempts to save his girlfriend. He uses the sound system to stun the demon things and everyone else, so he can nab Gwen from the faulty torture device.
Stone Canyon Giant written by David Allen is my favorite of all of the challenges, primarily because it uses stop-motion and was probably the single most expensive challenge in the movie. Paul is transported to another world and like in almost every case, he awaken in it groggie from partial unconsciousness. While trying to awaken from whatever magic Mestema used to transport him, two grunting dwarves snatch up his wrist computer and run off. Paul chases them down for a bit until he stumble across a temple with some kind of giant monkey god statue with a jewel in its forehead, sitting on a throne. The dwarves apparently placed Cal on an altar in front of the statue. He retrieves it only to awaken the giant statue that apparently shoots lasers from his jewel. A short fighting chase ensues, where the dwarves annoy him while he tried to get a shot off at the statues, and it ends with Paul shooting the statue in the jewel. Ouch!
While simple, this told a lot of story and left you wanting more. What were the dwarves? Why did they feel the need to leave an offering? I enjoyed this challenge thoroughly and there is no wonder it was featured a lot in the trailer. I think the lost opportunity was with the dwarves. Instead of making them just grunt, why not let them tell more story? So much more potential here but finally a legitimate use of the Cal wrist computer.
Slasher written by Jeffrey Byron is a very tropy and predictable story but it still has its moments. It seems out of place, however, after so many challenges based in fantasy worlds. Paul again is transported to another world – this time the modern one where he is basically framed for a murder that is apparently part of a series by a serial killer. As it turns out, somehow Cal figures out that Gwen is the likely next target and Paul has to save her. Paul has to escape the police and hunt down the killer using Cal. This would have been a much more meaningful challenge if (1) it was truly connected to the real world and (2) Gwen’s character wasn’t stupid in it. Suddenly, Gwen has amnesia and is in the real world seeking a dancing gig. Why? See below for my comments on connecting it to the real world.
Cave Beast written by Peter Manoogian is perhaps one of the lamest of all the challenges but in part because I do not think some of the story came across well. It is another lost opportunity. Paul is teleported to a cave opening where he hears a female voice calling out. He thinks it is a trap and resists going down into it, However the cries continue and he eventually gives in. Somewhere hidden in the cave is some kind of demon-troll, throwing exploding crystals at him. He uses Cal’s lasers to bring down the cave ceiling on the creature only to discover that it was an angel trapped inside the trolls body. She implies that she somehow “transgressed and was banished to this cave” but nothing is explained. She then vanishes, implying that she did not actually die. This could have been expanded to something far greater.
We have already established that Mestema with demon and devil imagery. Why not make this angel-person a trapped enemy of Mestema and with some act of compassion, Paul frees her from her cave prison. And then, at a moment of dire need in the final battle, she appears to return the favor. Such a missed opportunity.
Desert Pursuit written by Ted Nicolaou rehashes Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, by re-using the same vehicles in a similar post-apocalyptic setting. Paul and Gwen find themselves in a aircraft graveyard, somehow implying a post apocalypse. They are attacked by desert figures in these aforementioned vehicles. A chase ensues and the only value of this scene is Gwen finally shows she is more than a damsel in distress. Otherwise, it is simply a sad excuse of a ending story and probably was not needed. I guess they just needed a chase scene.
In between each segment is various encounters between Paul and Mestema, one of which involved them battling it out with virtually created dragons that really do not seem to do much. This segment alone would be awesome if they had half the budget of today’s films of this nature. In the end, it comes down to an awkward fist fight between Paul and Mestema where Paul ends up pushing him over a cliff into some lava that was only planted a few minutes earlier.
Also, throughout the movie, the Cal-bracer device has the ability to do all kind of things not possible in the 1980s but some are possible today, giving it a rather visionary subtext. He uses it to track down Gwen in Slasher, for example, almost simulating GPS location. At times, when convenient,. Cal also responds to voice commands, like Ceri. He also accesses police files remotely.
He also uses it constantly as a weapon, shooting lasers at everything. Most of his solutions involve shooting something out that wrist computer. Unfortunately, the effect is shooting out perpendicular to his wrist rather than a much cooler effect of shooting parallel from his wrist. I found that kind of stupid. You tell me which one is cooler?
Come on, there is no comparison. Additionally, there are times that he uses voice commands, while at others, he has to tap the screen or press buttons to get the wrist weapon to operate, creating a frustrating delay factor. There isn’t really any consistency with the weapon aspect of the wrist computer. In the end, the wrist weapons was really the ultimate missed opportunity. Although they did use this idea at the end to save Paul from falling into the pit of lava with Mestema in materializing something for him to grab, it’s frustrating that they did not allow the wrist computer to materialize a technological based weapon or tool to help him in each challenge.
There were two challenges that take place in the real world. This is another lost opportunity in story and in an RPG campaign, can make for a much more intense challenge. If they had connected these two events to the real world in the beginning, perhaps planting news headlines or TV broadcasts of a “concert accident that kills a dancer girl” (see above) or a “serial killer on the loose,” then these challenges would have deeper meaning and more impact. The bothered with a scene where Gwen is dancing with a bunch of nameless girls. Why not connect one of them to the serial killer as a victim. A boyfriend that comes and picks her up while Paul is there meeting Gwen (seen in a flashback). Later, Paul sees her face as a victim in the newspaper and he begins to put together the pieces. That’s a lot better than the way they handled it in the movie – “The paper you read is tomorrow’s headline…” and it’s Gwen’s face on the page. That’s just stupid.
I realize that is a lot of detail for a bad movie, but there was a lot of story potential in it.
The 12 Labors: From an RPG point of view, a series of challenges is a common theme in any genre. As mentioned, it goes as far back as Greek and Roman mythology. Each challenge should have a solution, however, but the GM should not railroad them in that direction. Leave clues for one way, but leave enough room for the players to come up with their own. Sometimes, the player can come up with better solution than you thought of.
I saw this movie come across Facebook in the form of a throw-back movie poster and was intrigued. Investigating it, I found that one website claims it was sited as the inspiration, in part, for Predator. The trailer has some amazing actors – Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Larry Storch, and Kevin Peter Hall (the man behind the Predator mask himself). I can see how it perhaps inspired the concepts. However, the general execution of the movie is pretty bad, despite all the talent they brought in. It was directed by Greydon Clark, mostly known for low-budget productions in the action/horror genres.
The movie generally centers around some small backwoods town that is secretly being terrorized by an alien entity that throws flying starfish-things to subdue its targets. Many victims fall to this hunter, including a father-son team out on a hunting trip, a cub scout leader (played by Larry Storch) and a few teenagers out for a swim on the town’s lake. Of course, the teenagers get a warning from the old town crazy men (Jack Palance and Martin Landau) about going to the lake, but they don’t listen.
For the most part, we follow the cliche group of teenagers as they are picked off one by one by the alien flying starfish, but you never really see who is throwing them. Landau plays Fred ‘Sarge’ Dobbs, a war veteran (one can only assume Vietnam but they never say) who suffers from a severe case of PTSD. Unfortunately, Sarge is the only one that (at first) claims to have seen the alien and it’s jellyfish throwing stars. And of course, no one believes him because he is the town crazy. On the other hand, Palance plays Joe Taylor, the local gas station owner and hunting expert. Taylor secretly knows about the alien and has been hunting it since it arrived.
It starts out like a classic 80s slasher film and turns into “the town fights back” in the end. Sarge and Taylor play a big part in the final story at opposite sides. Sarge, going in and out of a PTSD rage, ends up accidentally shooting the town sheriff and thinking everyone is an alien, including the college kids. Meanwhile, Taylor stalks around suspiciously and you are not sure his motivations. At one point, he’s gallant by taking on Landau and disarming him, while at other times, he’s creepy and suspicious in ways that only Taylor could pull off. In the end, he does reveal that he’s hunting the alien and felt that one town crazy was enough, so he kept it quiet.
The movie may center on the teenagers playing the cliche 80s victims (and that’s about it), but Taylor and Sarge steal the real show. They are two sides of the same coin – one man driven crazy by his past who no one believes and the other a valiant secret hero. Both want the alien dead for their own reasons. Both know it is up to no good (although it is never really explained to the viewer). Landau and Palance are great in this movie.
Unfortunately, the alien not only killed just about everyone in the movie but the movie itself. Its motivations are not quite clear. Aside from some disjointed ranting by Sarge, you don’t really know what it is. And once you see it, you just roll your eyes. It is basically the same old tall gray alien you see, with a big gray head and gray skin. It really looked like something out of Star Trek!
The flying jellyfish throwing stars got pretty old, pretty quick. They could not come up with something else? It seemed like a largely ineffective weapon. It would land on a victim and extend tentacles out into the victim’s skin, and exude some kind of yellowish goo. It never really tells you what it does to the victims but it shows a few of them kicked up in the shack later, some with eyeballs removed and others with big holes in their skulls. You are never really told what the alien is doing to the victims other than killing them. I guess we are just supposed to say “It’s alien, you won’t understand” or something. Not even an anal probe?
From an RPG perspective, I drew a couple of things from this movie that I really liked.
Human Accomplice: For a while there, I thought they were going to go down a dark path and have one of the men (Sarge or Taylor) an accomplice with the alien. Why? Well, one would have to expand on the alien itself to have that happen but it can be easily worked out. For instance, Sarge was driven so crazy by the alien that he saw him as his commanding officer, and being controlled telepathically (gray aliens always have telepathy, don’t they).
Alien Fugitive: Things would have to be reworked but I thought maybe the true killer was Sarge or Taylor and perhaps the alien was hunting the killer (for whatever reason). One of the men could be an alien shapeshifter that is acting as a serial killer, using the stars to paralyze his prey to later take them to the shack (in the movie) and butcher them. The alien is actually an enforcer hunting the shapeshifter down.
Showdown at the Bar: At one point, the teenagers end up at the town bar, with a number of the locals including Sarge and Taylor. This could have turned into a cool siege storyline where the people seal themselves in the bar and fend off all the strange things the alien would throw at them. Apparently, the alien was using some kind of organic tech (the throwing starfish) so a GM could up with other interesting organic tech things – hunting dogs, traps, and other interesting tidbits.
Just a Scout: Stealing from Predator 2, the GM could make the single alien just a scout and that there are a number of them in some secret lair or hidden spaceship.
By far, the alien is the weakest point of this movie – a one-trick pony with very little background or motivation. The GM would have to really flesh it out or use some other alien in its place. I think it would be a challenge, though, to simply use what they give you and expand off it.
Every once in a while, you will find a gem on Youtube.com that is surprising. Of course, Youtube has had full length movies for a while. Recently I decided to explore the sci-fi selection and found a movie that interested me. It looked pretty cheesy but something about it peaked my interested. As it turns out, there was more to it than just a cheesy name.
Ice Planet (2001) is a movie pilot that was intended to be a series. Made by a team of Canadian and German producers, it starred a few actors I recognized and a few I did not. One part Star Trek: Voyager, one part Battlestar Galactica, and one part Stargate: Atlantis, this pilot had incredible potential and I am highly disappointed that it never made it as a series.
The movie is set is the hundreds of years after a devastating war on Earth. Humanity has reached out to colonize the solar system. No alien races have been contacted because it is apparent that faster-than-light travel has not been discovered yet. We find ourselves on a military base on Io, orbiting Jupiter. There is a large population of humans on this base, which is part of something called the Union. The base is commanded by Commander Jonah Trager (Wes Studi) who reminds me of Adama from the new BSG. I really liked the design of their fighters, which resemble Star Wars B-wings but simpler. They bend and twist in some very interesting ways.
In the beginning, they sort of bounce around some scenes and it is difficult to make sense of it at first. They quickly introduce the French-accented rogue Han Solo type named Blade. They also introduce a mysterious girl being secretly transported on his vessel and some Jabba The Hutt person he is working for. Meanwhile, some alien ship shaped cloud is ominously converging on Io. At the same time, some professor-looking dude (played by Sab Shimono) is speeding towards Io in some huge ship, apparently reading something in a microscopic crystal.
The colony is in chaos as the cloud/ship approaches. Once the attack begins, it is quite obvious they are outmatched and they proceed to abandon it, launching life pods away from the alien ship. Some make it to the professor’s ship (which we discover later is called the Magellan). With the aliens in pursuit, the ship performs a strange warp jump orchestrated by the professor (Karteez A. Rumla). After a psychedelic trip through space and time, the ship drops into unknown space and onto a strange frozen world. If the strange ship and interstellar jump wasn’t bizarre enough, the ship landing in a landing zone obviously made specifically for it made it even stranger. This definitely got my attention.
They discover that they have no idea where they are, the stars and constellations are not recognizable and the professor postulates that they could have even traveled not only in space but also in time. The rest of the movie is a standard strangers-in-a-strange land story, with a few interesting plot devices. The overall pitch of the show was that this professor found an ice planet.
The survivors (a little over 1400) discover a tribe of Native-American-like humans speaking a strange language, an alien crystalline artifact that contains vast knowledge waiting to be tapped and the quiet girl planted in the beginning is connected to the whole thing somehow. Throughout this time, Rumla has been researching the planet’s orbit, saying the planet is acting more like a ship. This later is proven to be true.
Another alien ship arrives in orbit and the young girl somehow becomes possessed by an alien intelligence and conveys the rest of the story. With the alien ship looming, the possessed girls speaking in an alien voice says that alien intelligence on this planet sent out messages and the people of the Magellan were the first to reply. It identifies the aliens attacking as the Zedoni. With some help from the alien intelligence of the planet, they save some captured members of their crew, and fend off the alien ship long enough for us to discover that the planet itself can make a warp jump and appear in an entirely different system
I really liked this idea. This had so much potential. This can not only be a RPG adventure but it easily could be an entire campaign or setting. The production value of the show is about what you would expect for a 2001 sci-fi show. This was in the era of Babylon 5, Deep Space 9 and Voyager, and was about that level of quality. The acting was subpar but what you would expect from a show like this. The aliens were overly CGI’ed and needed to be more practical and tangible. The CGI was obviously low budget even for its time because it was a little choppy and blurry. It also was not shot in HD so that made if even more obscured.
For an RPG, the adventure opportunities are endless
An alien planet that jumps: This one stands out as one of the biggies. To get stuck on a world that jumps from one totally different part of the universe to another? What’s not to like about that?
Alien message in a bottle: This has been used in a lot of shows and movies. What does the message contain? Coordinates? Ship plans or plans for a gate device? Genetic codes for alien life forms? New scientific knowledge? Again, endless opportunity.
Alien tech changing humanity’s destiny: This, of course, is at the core of 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as many other novels and movies. This never gets old.
Browsing NetFlix again, I found a new sleeper sci-fi/post-apocalypse movie called The Colony. Starring some of my favorites like Bill Paxton and Laurence Fishburne, this movie had a great look, a great background but a fairly predictable and straightforward plot. It has some good concepts and execution wasn’t bad but for such an epic setting, it was a tad disappointing in story. But there is some inspiration in it.
The Colony takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a second ice age has enveloped the world. According to wikipedia – “By 2045, humans have built weather machines to control the warming climate due to climate change and global warming. The machines break down when one day it begins to snow and doesn’t stop. ” That is not quite the vibe I got though and this is where my first inspiration came from. What if these weather machines were more the cause than the solution? Humanity’s own hubris thinking they could solve “global climate change” made it worse. This is the perspective I approached it while watching it and is a common theme in many of my RPG campaigns.
The surviving humans live in colonies of underground compounds, where ever they can find them. Each are referenced simply as colonies, Colony 5 and 7 being the primary bunkers we see in the movie. Each deal with the issues you would expect in a frozen post apocalypse – food, water and disease. The colonies stay in contact via radio and Colony 7 in particular has the luxury of satellite connections which is commonly used to search for survivors as well as thaw.
The movie spends a good amount of time introducing the characters and establishing the social environment that the survivors are in. As you can imagine, it is pretty harsh. Anyone that is sick is quarantined until they get better. If they don’t get better, they are banished into the cold. Colony 7 is “ruled” by two former soldiers – one somewhat more nurturing and cerebral than the other. Paxton plays the harsh and hard-nosed leader (Mason) while Fishburne plays the opposite type of leader (Briggs). Briggs is officially in charge and the only thing that keeps Mason at bay. Of course, you get the feeling that things are going to change soon and the beast that Mason is will be released.
That moment comes when they lose contact with Colony 5. For some odd reason, Briggs volunteers himself and two others to go check it out. Apparently it is within reasonable walking distance. Personally, I would have said “Oh well” and stayed home. But I hate snow. The trek takes two days. Passing over an old bridge, they use a grounded helicopter as shelter at the halfway point. The tension in the movie begins to build from this point because my mind was going all over the place imagining what could be waiting for them? Aliens? Mutants? Alien Mutants? The possibilities were endless.
Going into the movie not knowing the nature of it, as I said above, I imagined all kinds of possibilities. Unfortunately, they never fulfilled by wildest hopes. They kept it more conventional and grounded, as well as gritty and somewhat gorey. Simply put, Colony 5 was attacked by cannibals – savage, teeth sharpening, cold-adapted humans that have gone insane from eating human flesh. Colony 5 is their new slaughter house as they feast on raw flesh.
Briggs and his team barely escape, losing the youngest in their group as they try. The savage cannibals give chase until the two survivors make a stand at the bridge, where Briggs sacrifices himself by using dynamite to collapse the bridge just as the group of savages are trying to cross. Sam makes his way back to his own colony feeling like the cannibals were defeated. He of course arrives to find Mason ruling over the colony like a tyrant and things don’t look good. However, all hell breaks lose when they realize that somehow, some cannibals survived, including the vicious leader who was at the center of the blast on the bridge (It could happen!). The assault on Colony 7 begins and chaos ensues.
From an RPG game master perspective, this movie is more about atmosphere than story. The story is not original, but not bad. This would be a great movie to watch, however, if you are creating an ice age apocalypse setting. It gives you ideas on the various things that could happen, things a survivor would have to deal with and the general feel of the movie was inspiring in itself.
The plot is nothing special, as I said, but the savage cannibals could be something else. I was rather uninspired by them because I find the old trope of “no monster is any worse than the ones inside ourselves.” But a GM could relate the bad guy back to the mysterious ice age. Maybe it was alien terraforming and they finally get to meet the aliens. Maybe the aliens did not expect survivors. All kinds of possibilities there.
Overall I like the movie more because of production value than story. They successfully created a ice age apocalypse on a fairly small budget. I recommend it if you like that kind of movie.
Sometimes you run across a movie on NetFlix and you wonder if it could have been a show pilot. I found one of these gems and it was called Parallels. It sounded like a remake of Sliders with a little The Lost Room thrown in. It is a movie that approaches a subject in sci-fi that is always challenging – alternate worlds. Very few shows or movies do it right. Comic books seem to do it pretty well, and now shows based on those comics are pulling it off. The subject really deserves a series and not a single movie. Parallels was meant to be a show, but was never picked up. To recoup their losses it was released as a movie.
What is interesting about the show is that since they did not continue the story (and there is so much potential for it), I believe it could be a great RPG series of adventures. This was a well made pilot but I think it was too ambitious. Which is probably why it never got bought as a series. And probably why Sliders ended up the way they did – awful. Every world is different in some way or another which makes for endless possibilities. There were certain axioms though that they characters had to abide by, that made for some very interesting possibilities.
We are first introduced to a three young characters – two are brother and sister and the other is a friend they grew up with. They all have their scarred pasts – the brother is a cage fighter (Ronan Carver), the sister is a highly intelligent prodigy that missed her opportunity for college because of tragedy (Beatrix Carver) and the friend is a recently graduated lawyer (Harold) who happens to have been holding a torch for the sister since they were old enough to remember. All three fulfilling three major roles in a party – the warrior, the skill user and the diplomat.
We find out the father of the siblings, named Alex, sent out messages to his kids calling them home and indicating it was important. They arrive at home to find him missing as well as a long string of interesting and mysterious clues. One clue is a futuristic looking ball that lights up when a button is pressed. Other clues lead the Ronan and Beatrix to a mysterious abandoned building. Along the way, they pick up their childhood friend Harold and their adventures begin.
Core to the plot is this mysterious building. As they unwitting party discovers, it has the ability to travel from one reality to another. While inside, they pick up a new companion, a mysterious woman named Polly who pops out of nowhere and seems to know more about the building then one should. The building travels from one world to another every 36 hours, but only spatially and not temporally. It is not a time machine or a TARDIS. It also never changes location – always the same city or relative location on the planet. No one knows who built it. All over the walls are notes about various Earths – which ones are dangerous, which ones are safe, etc. Of course, no one is really sure what they mean because they do not know from what perspective they were written and they have no idea which Earth is which. Unless the building has a pattern? This was never really clarified but it sounds like it might have been if the series continued.
The movie has them travel to two worlds – one devastated by nuclear war and one that has about 20 years advancement of technology. They are told that all they have to do is wait 36 hours and the building will move on to the next world. That tells me they don’t really have to go anywhere, right? Well, I suppose to survive, they have to find ways to eat, etc. There is a ton of things to consider and they touch on a few of them brilliantly – the parallel selves of each of the main characters, how they pay for things in different worlds, and dealing with people they know but may not know them.
There is a lot of unanswered questions in this film that had my mind wandering. You can tell there was a lot of story left untold, to be left to more episodes. Unfortunately, like I said, it was probably too ambitious. These questions left a lot of opportunity for story and anytime a RPG GM sees opportunity for story, he sees adventure
At some point, they are told that the building is from something called the Core World – a place of highly advanced humans. You later find out that Alex and their dead mother are from there or at least it is implied. Are these the ultimate humans? Core humans? Is there something special about them? Are they immortal? Do they have super powers?
Also along the way, when they were able, the siblings visited the equivalent of their home in each world to find more clues left behind by their dad. This was also an interesting aspect. An RPG GM in this situation would use this to create encounters for the adventurers and gave them a reason to leave the building. But what is the likelihood a parallel world would have the same street plan as the one they are from? And the same houses were built on those streets? How would they know? Some sort of plot device or convention would have to be established.
At the very end, you find out there are 3 different versions of Polly living in the building. Why? Are they from 3 different realities or just triplets? Are they Core Worlders? What is there agenda? They did not seem to have any kind of interest in anything related to the main characters however, when their father came on to the scene at the end, she seemed to fear him.
If you watch the credits, there are several potential worlds they never explored. A world where the water levels were high enough to make whatever city they were in seem like Venice, Italy and another one that had the water levels much higher (global warming world?). A world where everything else around it is ancient ruins, as if the ancient Romans built a city on that location but that was the last civilization to exist on the planet. Also there was a world where the city is actively engaged in some kind of war, with air raid spotlights and AA guns firing around it.
I tried running a game where the players were travelling from one parallel universe to another. I can tell you from that experience it is a lot of work for a GM. You are basically creating a whole new setting each trip they make. It might be a good idea to not only have the whole thoroughly fleshed out, but also contain the scope the players will see so that you don’t have to have it so thoroughly fleshed out. I compounded the work I needed to do by attempting it in a space opera setting – Babylon 5 setting, to be exact. I found it overwhelmingly difficult and too much work.
For a RPG campaign, the GM should map put each parallel universe beforehand, or at least the ones that are important to the story arche. More will come along or pop up as you play, I am sure but at least in this way, the harder work is done. Then decide what aspects you want the players to encounter while at the same time what aspects you want in the background. In a world where the Axis powers won World War II, do they encounter the Nippon Empire or the Nazis? One or the other will be in the background, most likely.
It is a challenge to use alternate realities in an RPG setting but it can be really fun if done right. Obviously, the TV execs decision to not buy into this show tells you that it risky business in the world of TV, as well. But it can be so rewarding, I think. I challenge you as a fellow RPG GM to give it a try.
I came across another movie while browsing my streaming options that intrigued me by the movie poster and the name. Not knowing anything about it other than it was sci-fi, I decided to give it a try. Sometimes I will start a movie like this and stop it after the first 5 minutes while other times the movie will grab me and I will watch it to the end.
Narcopolis starts out a little weird but eventually starts to make sense as time goes on. Eventually you find out that it involves time travel and that’s why it’s confusing. If you know it involves time travel, it might make more sense but I went in blind. Narcopolis is a reference to a near future world where all drugs are legalized in the UK. It stars Elliot Cowan, Jonathan Pryce, Harry Lloyd, and James Callis (of new Battlestar Galactica fame). Cowan plays Frank Grieves, a cop that gets drawn into a weird case that involves a mysterious corpse with strange symptoms. The corpse arrived in Grieves’ purview via the opening scene which takes place 20 years later.
The movie turns into a long and somewhat brooding intrigue-filled chase scene as Grieves digs deeper into a plot that involves the largest supplier of legal drugs in the UK and some time jumping rebels. These time jumpers are using some kind of injection into their neck that enables them to travel through time. That really does not sound all that precise but whatever works. I think that gets into the whole premise of the movie.
The movie ends with a surprise ending. I will leave that to the reader to find out about. Overall, the movie as a pleasant surprise. There were some slow moments that I had to fast forward to but it kept me wondering to the end. I had to find out what was going to happen in the end.
But at the center of the movie was sort of a Timothy Leary-esque approach to drugs and the human brain. Very subtly, the premise basically says that opening the mind through drugs, especially the designer drugs this big company was pushing out, can open the potential of the mind. So much so, that one can access the power to travel through time, with the right mix of narcotics.
One of the oldest tropes of sci-fi movies like this is that “we only use 10% of our brain” and in saying that, it poses a question of what if we used all 100% of it. The movie (and subsequent TV series) Limitless dealt with this in a much more subtle way. So in an RPG, what does this mean? Can a drug be used to give players temporary abilities? Imagine a super hero game where the players are normals that gain their abilities through drugs. Or a transhuman sci-fi game where abilities begin to rise in a transhuman colony because of drugs given to them to survive the harshness of their world. It could be a very cool gimmick for a one shot. It also can be an interesting campaign, chasing down the manufacturers of these drugs and having to take them just to fend off their thugs along the way.
I am a sucker for a movie inspired by Alien or The Thing. Show a sci-fi monster movie and I am there. I ran across this moviewhile browsing Netflix, not know anything about it. The blurb interested me so I started it. I found out later that this film was Kickstarted by a team that promised a movie with all-practical effects, with as little CGI as possible. That is what drove me to watch it all the way through. I am not sure I would have if I hadn’t found that information.
The movie starts out with a short background scene set in the 1980s. A Soviet space capsule is tumbling into Earth’s atmosphere with one cosmonaut on board. He tried to gain control of the capsule but ultimately fails and the capsule is seen plummeting through the atmosphere partially burning up as it falls somewhere in a frozen tundra.
Cut to a team of scientist preparing to go on some kind of mission. We find out later that they are studying connections between whale behavior and climate change somewhere near Alaska. To keep things on the cheap, they are using a crabbing boat called the Harbinger captained by Graff (Lance Henricksen), who happens to be the grandfather of one of the scientists, Sadie. We are introduced to the rest of the crew, which includes several distinct and interesting personalities, including the gruff Inuit, loud and funny African American, big and tall guy, Russian semi-sexy girl that might have a testosterone imbalance, and the obligatory handsome guy that has an interest in the granddaughter.
We meet the scientists as they set up their “complex equipment.” There are basically three – Sadie, the asshole lead from the university, and the another young student helping with the study. The ship’s crew crab by night, and the scientists perform their study during the day. One evening while looking over their data, Sadie spots something that leads to a very interesting discovery – the crashed remains of the Russian capsule.
Long story short, there is something else on board the capsule, which is surprisingly determined to be a moon lander. They find the frozen remains of the pilot, which is reasonably intact and not burned. However, it is infected with some kind of parasite and it eventually begins to infect the crew and take over the ship. There is also a twist. As it turns out, the Russian crew woman is more than just a fisherman – she’s a spy who knew they would come across the capsule somehow. She set up bombs on the ship to destroy the creature that has no infested the whole ship and plans to escape by a nearby Russian sub she has been in contact with. Synyster Russians!
I can’t write about this movie without going into the creative idea behind the creature. It is like cross between The Thing and Alien, more the former than the latter. But it is a human creation. Apparently in the 80s, the Russians were working on ways to create better cosmonauts through genetic and bio engineering, using DNA from various obscure insects – primarily a creature called a Tardigrades (also known as water bears or moss piglets). However, the radiation of space travel and its long imprisonment in ocean ice caused severe mutations. This results in a ooze that liquefies the host and reshape into however it feels like, based on the DNA is has absorbed. If one gets splashed by the goo in anyway, he or she become infected by the parasite, which begins to liquify their flesh and join it with the rest of the goo on the ship. This creature can reform into all kinds of wicked and horrific creature combinations that practical effects can create.
While investigating this creature with the science equipment, there is a great reveal scene that includes these lines:
Ronelle – “It is showing the DNA of more than one species.”
Big G – “This is no good”
Sadie – “Seawater carries the DNA of everything that lives and dies in it, from bacteria on up…”
Ronelle – “These things have been basking in a DNA soup for who knows how long.”
Sadie – “They’ve absorbed the DNA of hundreds of species.”
They go on to say that the mutated tardigrades can liquify and replicate organs, blood and tissue as well as recode DNA! Very cool concept!
It gradually absorbs just about every crew member, as well as two tons of crabs the ship was carrying, creating some great creature moments on screen. Some are very obviously homages to scenes from Alien or The Thing. The movie proceeds as one would expect with a final survivor escaping death as the ship is destroyed and the creature rendered into a non-threatening state (for lack of a better description) … until next sequel.
This is an RPG adventure one shot waiting to happen. In fact, I am writing something right now that will most definitely be heavily influenced by this. Here are the potential plots and aspects of the movie I liked.
Cold War connection – Any connection to the Cold War or either World War can draw me in. The aspect of the Moon lander really intrigues me and adds some good depth to the story. The Soviets secretly landed on the Moon? Are there other cosmonauts with this parasite on the moon? Did the establish a base? Was it really the radiation that mutated it or something else on the moon?
Genetic Engineering of Obscure Creatures – Science is awesome! The things they are messing around with today can be a great inspiration for stories. Just read into the science behind the tardigrade, and you will find what inspired this movie in part. It takes a little work but digging into real life science theories can bring about great adventure.
Isolation – I have written about this before but I live that it is isolated in the cold arctic (a lot The Thing) onboard a crabbing ship (a la Alien). You can not get more isolated than that. A good one shot can take place in such isolation if designed well.
Hardcore science fiction is very hard to pull off from a role playing game perspective because realism tends to bore the average player. Yea, I know, there are those that prefer it and I can respect that. However, in my experience, the average player does not want to go through the mind numbing realization that space is big, full of long boring trips and the physics of space is the major enemy of a space traveller. Be it the lack of visuals, the lack of understanding, or disinterest in the realities of space, many players would prefer the space spanning adventures of science fantasy (Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy) rather than the real world science of games like Traveller or the like.
Europa Report is a movie that portrays that some of the realities of space in s dark and gritty way. The advent of the science fiction horror genre – thanks to movies like Alien- allowed us to see hard core science fiction in what I feel is true light – the terrifying kind. Space is big – mind bogglingly big – so much so that it would turn you into a babbling moron if you thought about it too much.
It is an injustice to call Europa Report a low budget B movie because it does have some recognizable stars and the effects are top notch. But I found it very inspiring. Using some of the best and most realistic graphics I have seen to portray deep space travel to Jupiter’s moon, it shows you just how majestic as well as heart-stoppingly scary a journey like that can be.
The story of this movie is very simple and told is a fairly complex but intriguing way. The story does not make this movie – the visuals as well as the way the story is told make it unique. How is that useful in an RPG? Referencing back to the visuals really creates the pictures in the player’s mind, assuming they have seen it. Or you can pull the visuals up on a video screen if they have not seen it.
The story is told in a “found footage” manner and not chronologically. It jumps between the weeks before landing and the build up to launch, and events that occurred in the middle. It is hard to keep up with, but you get the total story by the end. It i s a very satisfying story, in my opinion – leaving you feeling triumphant but also scared; sad but in wonder.
It is humanity’s first deep space mission and it was too important to send drones. They loaded up a ship with international astronauts – 4 men and 2 women – and sent them off to Europa in search of water and hopefully life. At some point, the ship loses contact with mission control and later you find out that it was due to a sun flare. A crewman is killed in the attempt to fix it, left floating out in the middle of space (awesome but gut wrenching scene). The rest are left to finish the journey. Arrival at Europa is visually stunning, but definitely leaves you with a feeling of dread as well, because it is so alien and untouched by man. Lots of bad things happen during their attempt to study what is below the ice, but I won’t give away too much beyond that.
Although this is a straightforward storyline, it can inspire a GM to approach space in a different manner. Instead of just the space between one planet to another, it too can be a place of adventure. It can be a scary place. It can be used to put horror in a traditionally non-horrific setting (which I do not see as a bad thing). It can be used to knock a player group down to size. Space is big and despite all the technology or magic advancements we might have, nothing is perfect.
Even in games like Star Wars, that treat space and its dangers as an afterthought, I think a GM should take a moment to remind the players just how dangerous and big space is. Many probably feel that bringing in such hard core science fiction aspects is not appropriate for that kind of setting but I don’t feel that way. It does not have to be a constant thing but I also never want my players to take space for granted.
Sci-fi is my thing, I make no bones about it. I love a good story of group of people exploring the unknown, finding alien monsters, and learning that the universe is much bigger than they thought. Browsing Netflix, I found yet another unexpected gem of a movie – Dark Space. It is a low budget sci-fi thriller that starts out like a bad sci-fi version of a Spring Break movie that turns into a great story that could be an awesome RPG one shot or campaign.
It starts out by introducing two of the protagonists – two 20-something party animals looking to rent a shuttle on a Spring Break trip to a planet called Centauri V. You learn later that they are a part of a party of six – three guys and three girls. I am guessing we are supposed to believe these people are college age but most look a little older. The first act is primarily the party on the shuttle while autopilot guides the shuttle along the route to their destination. The whole scene is sort of surreal if you think about it, because you can totally see something like this happening one day.
Things go badly when the stoned and drunk partiers decide to tinker with the speed restrictor on the shuttle. They end up going way off course and down what looks like a wormhole. In the process, the shuttle is severely damaged, and if they don’t land, they are going to die. Fortunate for them the planet they ended up orbiting was habitable and temperate enough for them.
Landing on the alien world that remarkably looks like the Canadian mountains, they quickly find themselves caught between primitive “alien gorillas” and a unnamed corporate faction looking to wipe out said “alien gorillas.” Realizing this is basically a Prime Directive violation on steroids, the group attempts to fix their shuttle and escape. One by one, the hapless victims are taken out through one means or another until two women (Girl Power!) survive, fight back a little and get away.
For those that don’t get the reference…
In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive is the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive, used in four of the five Star Trek-based series, prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations. This conceptual law applies particularly to civilizations which are below a certain threshold of technological, scientific and cultural development; preventing starship crews from using their superior technology to impose their own values or ideals on them. Since its introduction in the first season of the original Star Trek series, it has served as the focus of numerous episodes of the various series. As time travel became a recurring feature in the franchise, the concept was expanded as a Temporal Prime Directive, prohibiting those under its orders from interfering in historical events.
Apparently something is so valuable on that planet (which they never really identify) that a big bad corporation would commit genocide on an alien species. Pretty simple plot but it makes for a pretty good low budget movie. The CGI is pretty cheesey but the armor costumes used by the corporates was pretty cool looking. I would not mind stat’ing that out for an RPG.
There are a couple of inspirational approaches I get from this movie for an RPG adventure.
(1) Unsuspecting explorers stumble on a corporate or governmental plot. It does not have to be genocide. It could be experimentation of some kind, like cloning or genetic manipulation. It works best on world or location that is tucked away or otherwise unknown to the “authorities”. This can even be used in fantasy genre, translated to a obscure island or underground location few know about.
Scale the operation to the character’s abilities. A GM does not want to present too big of a challenge to the players but also do not make it too easy.
(2) Corporate or Governmental faction committing some heinous crime for the sake of a rare resource or secret. Why would a corporation commit genocide against a primitive people to clear a planet? I would imagine that it would take a lot of resources to do that. This is a question I asked throughout the movie and never got an answer to my full satisfaction. This question alone can lead to a sequel, I think. What secrets or valuable resources does this planet or location hold. Are habitable worlds just that rare? Or is their a rare resource on the world? Or is there something more mystic like ancient ruins that hold an alien secret?
The Prime Directive can be at the core of any campaign in just about any genre and violating it in some way can lead to great adventure.